Temples, markets, jungle and a bounty island
From Bangkok (palace and temples) to Ko Hai Witte (white beaches, palmtrees and green hills). From Chiang Mai (temples) to Bo Sang (umbrellas), Mae Rim (petting tigers), Mae Ping (on elephantback through the jungle) and minority villages. By way of Sukhothai (temples) to Nong Khai (boat trip on the Mekong and sculpture park Sala Kaew Ku). In Lopburi monkeys have made San Phra Kan their home. From Pak Chong (bat cave) to Khao Yai National Park.
Meals are stir-fried in the streets
From the International Airport Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok we take a cab to the guesthouse, where I made an advance reservation. It's great to drive with the windows open and feel the heat again.
Large billboards, huge photos of the king and other members of the royal family, black statues along the side of the road with their hands pressed together in a gesture of welcome, and modern highrises. Also lots of buses with colorful paintings of manga cartoons, tuktuks, taxis, many, many mopeds, food stalls and vendors.
Our guesthouse is in Thanon Khao San, at walking distance from Wat Pho and the Royal Palace. It's a busy street with lots of backpackers, restaurants and stores, booths and food stalls. It's wonderful to watch how meals are stir-fried in the street. You only have to point out what kind of noodles, vegetables and other ingredients you want.
There are masses of vendors with things you always wanted: hats, wooden frogs, bracelets, necklaces, cigarettes, lighters and fake-tattoos which are worn like a sock around the arm.
There is loud music everywhere. Taxis and tuktuks are waiting for tourists, even though after 7 PM no vehicles are allowed in.
Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew
Rows of gold Buddhas and giant demonic guards
At the Royal Palace it turns out that our daughter isn't dressed appropriately. Against a 100 Baht (about 2 euro) deposit she is handed a large, cream-colored shirt - much to her dismay - and has to change in a special "dressing room."
We wander through the gigantic Royal Palace complex and are soon stunned by the many impressions. We enjoy the gold and multi-colored chedis and rows of gold Buddhas.
We also love the lavishly decorated Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), the giant demonic guards and stern garudas (half eagle, half human).
The beauty is mostly in the details: grey sculptures of all kinds of animals and warriors, colorful decorations on the walls, columns with gold inlays, masterly mosaics, water bowls with lotus flowers and long, waving stair handrails in the shape of nagas.
There are roof ornaments in the shape of chofahs, which have the body of a bird and a head with a horn.
Many tourists in the compound walk around with surgical masks, because of the Mexican flu.
Wat Arun and Wat Pho
The coins tinkle when they are thrown in metal pots
To visit Wat Arun (named after Aruna, god of dawn), we have to take the ferry to the other side of the Chao Phraya river. The rickety pier is in a neighborhood that smells of dried fish, sewer and rotting fruit. There are several wooden stores.
Wat Arun has a pagoda that is decorated with pieces of china. The stairs up are very steep.
Wat Pho has more lenient modesty policies than the Royal Palace.
We see many large and small(er) Buddha statues, some of which are wrapped in plactic: the temple is getting a paint job.
A highlight is of course the huge Reclining Buddha.
We are overwhelmed as we look at the 46 meters long and 15 meters high golden statue. The foot soles are very special, with 108 signs that represent the three worlds.
We listen to the constant tinkling of coins that are thrown into metal pots by the crowds of tourists.
A lot of construction and maintenance is going on. For a small fee we write our names on a roof tile, which will become part of the roof in the course of this year and will stay there for decades. It's a nice thought to leave behind a tangible piece of yourselves.
Plastic tubs full of stemless flowers
It's pouring when we walk to the Flower Market. We have to stoop to avoid the covers of the leaking stalls. It's dripping everywhere and it's also slippery. Loose paving stones cause wet feet. A rat scurries into the sewer directly before my feet.
The flower market has many stalls with plastic wrapped flowers. Women sit under large umbrellas stringing flowers on sticks. There also is a large indoor market. Here we see big bags, wicker baskets and plastic tubs full of stemless flowers.
On our way back to the guesthouse we enjoy the view of dozens of food and drink stalls with cookies, spring rolls, sausages, satay, bananas wrapped in leaves, soup, fish balls, rice, noodles, bottles of soda and fresh-made fruit juice and shakes.
Via Trang to Ko Ngai (Ko Hai)
Every time the train stops, vendors enter
We travel by night-train from Bangkok southward to Trang, a 15-hour trip. Our carriage shows a nice composition of aluminum bagage racks, stairs and wide seats.
During the wonderful trip folding tables are opened, cold beer and hot rice dishes are served, the beds are made and curtains are hung. There is an ingenious system of beds that are folded out or that appear when the seat pillows are rearranged.
Every time we stop verdors enter with ice-cold sodas and bottles of beer, square coconut cookies, bags of warm rice with vegetables and meat, fruit and shrimp crackers.
Initially we only see trash dumps and slums with self-made wooden huts with corrugated iron roofs. Outside the little houses are skinny dogs and cats. Chickens with long legs roam free.
Later we see palmtrees, banana trees, rubber plantations and many fresh-green paddies with now and then bright white herons. We also see small kingfishers on electricity cables.
In Trang a mini-van takes us from the train station to the pier. It's a beautiful trip on busy roads along palmtrees and rubber plantations with sometimes still very small trees. In the distance we see hills surrounded by fog. Skinny cows graze along the road, some have bumps between their shoulderblades, others have long, sharp horns.
Remarkable are the many mopeds on the road, sometimes carrying as many as four people: one parent in front, one on the back seat and two children sandwiched between them. Nobody wears a helmet.
White beaches, palmtrees and green hills
At the pier we board a "longtail boat" to the isle of Ko Hai. The boat's engine looks like an oversized hand blender, attached to a long metal tube. The skipper is very handy with it.
It's a pleasant trip: the weather has changed and it's warm and sunny. On the way we see several small islands, not more than large limestone rocks overgrown with greenery.
Ko Hai looks appealing with its beautiful white beaches against a backdrop of palmtrees and green hills. We relax for a couple of days in our huts, less than 30 meters from the beach.
The water of the turquoise see is not spectacularly clear, but at low tide we can still see many kinds of fish by the coral.
In the morning, dozens of hornbills fly over the beach from tree to tree and then disappear laughing. It's hard to take pictures of them.
In the daytime we now and then go out to explore the island. There are many small crabs on the beaches, they move with the speed of light.
There are no monkeys on Ko Hai, but there are snakes: once one of them even enters on of the huts. It turns out to be innocuous, that is to say not poisonous. The snake tries to escape through the bushes, but to our dismay an employee of the resort kills the animal.
At night we can almost every day have dinner on the beach. There aren't many guests, it's low season her. Every now and then there are beautiful, but short dusks.
You can pay to have a bird released
A few days later we visit Krabi by longtail boat and mini-van. It's a nice town, but we stay only for a few hours and then fly to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. The town has special seats for traffic police: bucket seats with roofs in the shape of large helmets.
In Chiang Mai we find a nice guesthouse in the old town center with a large courtyard filled with antiques, a go school, swimming pool, internet café, restaurant and a travel agent. The place swarms with Dutch people.
In Chiang Mai we often travel by sangtaew, a pick-up truck with roofed-over seats in the back. We visit Wat Hua Kuang, one of the many wonderful temples. Here we also find the most fantastic sculptures, decorations, nagas, roof ornaments and Buddhas.
Outside Wat Hua Kuang are signs with "wise" sayings, like: "It is a sad house where the hen crows louder than the cock" or "More haste, less speed." And: "A mind without work is the most troubled."
There are almost always vendors near temples: stalls with picture postcards, sodas and candles. There are also people with birds in diminutive baskets: you can pay to have one or more of the little animals released. Oh, well.
We also use Chiang Mai as a springboard for visiting touristic highlights in the surroundings.
Little by little umbrellas are created
Bo Sang is one of the "Umbrella Villages." I honestly had a more romantic image than the large, covered workshop where the umbrellas are made and the even larger sales hall, where lots of other stuff than umbrellas is sold as well. It's an extremely commercial setup.
Still it's wonderful to watch how little by little umbrellas are created by the skillful hands of the artists.
Tiger Kingdom in Mae Rim
Petting tigers for fifteen minutes
In the zoo-like park Tiger Kingdom in the small town of Mae Rim you can pet tigers for a stiff fee. Yes. Something we always wanted. There are several options and combinations: petting tiger or lion (what are they doing in the Tiger Kingdom?) cubs, medium large tigers and young adult tigers.
We take the whole package and are locked up in different cages for an hour with a guide, a professional photographer and a keeper. As silly as it may sound, it is a great experience.
On the way back to Chiang Mai we make a short visit to a snake farm, but that turns out to be a too lofty term to describe the pathetic little park with snakes in formalin and a couple of rusty cages with sad animals in them. Not only snakes, but also macaques, a beo and a large iguana. The snake show isn't very interesting either. The only thing worth taking a picture of, is when some King cobras are milked for their venom.
Mae Ping Elephant Village
Trudging through the jungle on elephantback
We drive north from Chiang Mai, first to Pai and later to Fang. The village is a large wooden compound with a restaurant with wooden tables and benches, and some stores. We have a view of a slowly flowing river a few meters below us.
Our guide has booked a few elephants for us within minutes. And thus we sit on the back of one of the fifty behemoths for an hour. It wades through water and then trudges through the jungle at an extremely slow pace.
In doing this, the animal literally follows in the footsteps of one of its many predecessors on a red, muddy path. The surroundings are pretty, but very open. We hear birds, but don't see one single animal.
In some huts on long wooden poles peanuts and bamboo are sold to feed to the elephants.
Women with giraffe necks and stretched earlobes
We visit a small village between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. It's not a real village, more like collection of stalls that sell sculptures, carpets, jewelry and clothes.
Here we see some women with long necks with rings around them. The heavy copper rings suggest that their necks are longer than ours, but according to x-ray photos that isn't the case. These so-called giraffe women are Padaung, even though they prefer to be called Kayan. Twenty years ago they fled neighboring Birma for Thailand.
There are also Karen women with long, stretched earlobes. And women of other tribes, like the Lisu and the Lahu, also live in the village. For a fee, you can take their pictures: this way, the traditional way of life can be preserved.
It's all very picturesque, but at the same time I feel uncomfortable about gawking at people as if we're in a zoo.
Ruins of temples and a royal palace
We travel by bus from Chiang Mai by way of Lam Phun and Lam Pang to the "new" Sukhothai, farther south in north-central Thailand.
The beautiful landscape gets increasingly wild: trees with overgrown trunks; dark trees with long aerial roots, which hang from the trees like monkey tails; lots of banana trees; innumerable paddies lined with tall, slender palmtrees. Here and there a moped is parked between the fields.
On the outskirts of Sukhothai are wooden houses on poles in the water of the Yom river. They can be reached over long footplanks. Fish nets are drying on the porches.
Near a market sits a metal cage with a monkey in it. Under his cage lie plastic bags and moldy remains of vegetables and fruit. The animal breaks our hearts. When it sees us, it covers itself in dirty orange rags.
About 15 kilometers from the city center of Sukhothai is the History Park Sukhothai, which measures some 4 square kilometers.
In the park are the ruins of the 13th and 14th centuries capital of the ancient Kingdom of Sukhothai. There are remains of a great amount of temples and a royal palace, and also some beautiful Buddha statues.
At one of the entrances sits an old woman with a heavy yoke which has bananas in one of its two baskets. A little farther clothes, Buddha statues and souvenirs are sold.
The atmosphere is very special because of the unusual combination of remains of red brick walls, damaged chedis, large, benign looking Buddhas, thick trees with lots of roots, calm ponds with tall lotus flowers, and pimply columns with holes in them, in which pigeons have made their nests.
It's an extraordinary experience to see the large Buddha with gold-dyed fingers and nails. Sep (my wife) stood here 27 years ago and I vividly remember the photos that were taken here.
On the road to Nong Khai
The landscape is dominated by paddies
We take the bus via Pithsanulok and Udon Thani to Nong Khai in the northeast of Thailand. It's a long day of traveling and we have to transfer a couple of times. Bus terminals in Thailand are lively, with people eating while they wait in bucket seats or on wooden benches. There are also little stores and food and drink stalls.
There is a man with a catapult in the Pithsanulok bus terminal. He uses large brown seeds to scare away pigeons that are sitting on the roof ridge. His son gets to try also, which causes great hilarity among the waiting passengers.
The hilly landscape is dominated by paddies. It's beautiful to see how the hills are reflected in the water in which the young rice stalks are growing. We see large bamboo plants, sticking out from trees and shrubs like austrich feathers.
In some areas only corn is grown. In again another part of the province are many flower nurseries. Underneath low hanging cloths which are attached to poles, the plants are grown in the soil or in plastic containers.
Sailing on the Mekong along rubber and pineapple plantations
Nong Khai is a quiet town on the Mekong, the fast flowing, red-brown river that separates Thailand from Laos. A long promenade runs along the river. It has balustrades and stone stairs that lead into the river.
There is an indoor market, Tha Sadet. The merchandise, displayed a little too neatly, is mostly souvenirs, electronics, watches and plastic wrapped food.
We visit Sala Kaew Ku, an excentric religious sculpture park. The grey statues, some of which are 20 meters tall) were made by many amateur sculpturers, under the inspiring leadership of the Laotian shaman Luang Poo Boun Leua Sourirat.
It is the most bizarre collection I have ever seen, with among others, sculptures inspired by Buddha, Shivah and Ganesh. There is a sculpture of a large open mouth, which leads into a tunnel to a smaller, circular sculpture garden with the wheel of life and sculptures which represent birth, sickness and death. The sunny, green grounds, with a large pond full of koi carps and catfish, are dominated by a Buddha sitting under a majestic naga with seven heads. While we walk around our jaws drop time and again.
In the evening we have dinner and drinks on a boat that sails on the Mekong. We see the 1,200 meters long Friendship Bridge at dusk. A little later we see a thunderstorm rage over Laos.
After a day of rest that we spontaneously inserted, we take a tour of a number of villages on the Mekong. The route leads from Tha Bo via Sri Chiang Mai to Sangkhom. Every village has speakers on poles. Every morning and evening the Thai national anthem is played. They are also used by the village chief to read local news once a day.
On the way we see rubber trees and a pineapple plantation with endless rows of plants. Most houses have large, earthenware containers with lids. They are used to store water.
At some points the road is only ten meters removed from the river. The bank on the Loas side has jungle-like overgrowth. We visit some temples, where we see wax statues made by a monk who was very important for this region.
At one of the temples, reached by a slippery, sandy road with potholes, we have a great view of the Mekong, which seems to fork at this point. We see large millipedes and a stick insect (Carausius morosus).
There is also a large gong, which we sound three times, because that's supposed to bring good luck.
Ayutthaya and Lopburi
A large group of monkeys populates San Phra Kan
We take the night train to Ayutthaya and arrive early in the morning. Too early, because most guesthouses ar still closed. But we find one, a cozy one with fresh smelling, high room with mint-green wooden walls, a ceiling fan and a separate shower and toilet space.
An extraordinarily nice, chubby woman makes us a large breakfast with toast and eggs, coffee, tea and orange juice.
We take the train to Lopburi and back. It's another great ride with a stream of vendors who hold trays of sausages, eggs and fish balls on sticks, buckets overflowing with ice-cold cans of soda and beer, wicker baskets with plastic bags of dried vegetables, fruit and other food, snacks wrapped in banana leaves, big plastic bags filled with green and red sodas and icecubes, bags of boiled eggs and peanuts, roasted chicken and bags of corn.
Outside we see paddy after paddy, this time with many storks and small and large white herons.
The goal of our trip to Lopburi is to see the ruins of San Phra Kan, which are home to a large group of monkeys (a kind of macaque). We take a rickshaw from the train station for a change.
We can hardly believe our eyes when we see the monkeys on the fenced-off grounds and on the walls of the ancient temple. But they also sit on electricity cables, houses, window sills, fences or just walk around in the streets. There is a kiosk that sells sunflower seeds to feed the monkeys, but before you know what happens, they already have grabbed the bag from your hands.
We visit the ruins, from which the monkeys are painstakingly shut out. It's wonderful to see them hug the bars: they are outside and we are inside. Small bats hang from the ceiling. There is a Buddha statue without a head.
A cave with two million bats
Again we take the train, this time to Pak Chong, and from there we will continue on to the Khao Yai National Park. I see reddish brown, plowed fields and cornfields. The grazing skinny, bony cows still fascinate me. Then the landscape gets rougher. Tree trunks overgrown with climbers, and lianas and wild shrubs. As the hills race by the train window, they seem to be covered with broccoli.
We stay in a guesthouse that organizes one and a half days tours, including an all-day visit to the Khao Yai National Park. In the afternoon we first visit a well, but we aren't the only ones: on Sundays the local population also bathes in it. The difference is that they immerse themselves fully clothed, while we wear swimsuits.
Then we visit a temple in Pak Chong with a stern guide who explains everything, doesn't suffer arguments, and wants our full attention. As if we hadn't seen temples before in Thailand... We descend into a cave with some Buddha statues. In the past, the cave was used by monks to meditate.
Finally we visit a bat cave, a dark cavern at an altitude of dozens of meters in a hill. At first haltingly, a few dozen bats are spit out by the cave, but soon a constant stream of bats leave the cave to go hunting.
It's a matter of hunting and being hunted: even before the bats take off, there are already birds of prey around the cave. As soon as the bats fly, they are easily picked off by the birds. It usually takes an hour before the whole colony of around two million animals is outside. It's wonderful to see the swarms of black dots against the orange sky.
Khao Yai National Park
We get special socks against leeches
The next mornig a pick-up truck takes us to the Khao Yai National Park. On the way we see a man with an elephant walking on the side of the road. In the visitors center we are given special socks that we have to wear over our long pants to protect us from the ubiquitous leeches.
From the pick-up truck, where we are allowed to stand on the lowered tailboard, we see gibbons, two kinds of macaque, scorpions, hornbills, some very poisonous snakes and an elephant. The highlight of the day is a leopard crossing the road, even though not all of us see it. Our guide Jim's enthusiasm is so contageous that it hardly matters.
We walk a trail but unfortunately we don't see any monkeys or birds. But we see traces of sunbear claws on tree trunks.
We also see thousands of ant soldiers marching through the jungle in a long line to safeguard the ant eggs: rain is coming.
There are fat millipedes, which roll themselves into a brown ball when touched. Trees that are dozens of meters tall are covered with moss and have complicated root systems. Some tree trunks have spiraled around each other and look like one tree. We see lianas that are completely lignified.
Of course we are extensively and knowledgeably informed about trees and plants, and we taste several kinds of fruit that we don't know. To make a long story short: the park is wonderful.
In the evening we take the bus back to Bangkok where enjoy the lively street scenes on Thanon Khao San one more day before we have to leave.